02 December 2020

The Guardian: “How our home delivery habit reshaped the world”

The great trick of online retail has been to get us to do more shopping while thinking less about it – thinking less, in particular, about how our purchases reach our homes. This divorce of a product from its voyage to us is perhaps the thing that Amazon has sold us most successfully. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, never wanted his customers to worry about shipping – about how much it cost, or about how long it would take – and he relentlessly shredded delivery times to make shipping incidental to the purchasing experience.

Amazon’s emphasis on speed compelled other retailers to hurry, too, and encouraged us to believe that if something cannot be had quickly, it is barely worth having at all. It is as if we have forgotten that a product is an object moving through space, fighting gravity, air resistance and other forces of nature. Companies, though, are only too aware of it. While we choose and buy our purchases with mere inch-wide movements of our thumbs, they are busy rearranging the physical world so that our deliveries pelt towards us in ever-quicker time.

But as our urban lives have grown more pressed for time, we have diced our opportunity costs finer and finer; from budgeting days or slabs of hours, we have come to rationing minutes. Delivery schedules have shrunk in parallel. You might now reason that even a 12-minute walk to the store to buy a can of beans is too great an expenditure of time, and that the fee paid for one-hour delivery is a fair price to snatch those minutes back into your life. Of course, the principle of opportunity cost assumes that we will earn the value of that fee back in some way in those 12 minutes – whereas the truth is that we are most likely to squander them on Instagram. The internet promises us time, then takes it right back.

Samanth Subramanian

Wonderful overview of the complicated field of logistics, where companies aggressively optimize transportation and packaging to deliver an increasing variety of goods to our doorsteps as fast as possible. Another article from pre-corona times, but the information here is just as relevant as before, if not more. The improved logistic developed over the past decade has allowed a large number of people to comfortably and safely work from home, and the disruption of the pandemic has in turn benefitted e-commerce companies, a sector which this year has seen growth equivalent to several years under normal circumstances.

A Kiwibot on the University of California campus in Berkeley
A Kiwibot on the University of California campus in Berkeley. Photograph: SiliconValleyStock/Alamy

The article mentions other effects related to this shift to home delivery: the environmental impact should not be neglected, as discarded packaging becomes waste and drives demand for cardboard and tree cutting. The impact on emissions on the other hand is less clear, as more home deliveries means less individual trips to the store, presumably by car. The demand for storage space to optimize last-mile deliveries can be met by repurposing real estate fallen into disuse, another potential consequence of the pandemic. Other concerns come from increased economic concentration – after all, the most efficient solution is to have a unique distribution network, not multiple competing services, each with its own fleet of delivery vehicles and pick-up boxes. It will be interesting to see how this sector will evolve once the pandemic subsides, but I expect e-commerce to continue growing, even at a slower pace.

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